BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Southwark Playhouse
Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years has come back to London after a stint in the West End in 2016 as an intimate and exceptionally touching production directed by Jonathan O'Boyle. The iconic musical follows Cathy and Jamie's five-year relationship through all the highs and lows of a natural, declining love story.
Premiered in 2001 in Chicago, it saw an ugly court battle between the writer and his ex-wife, who sued him because the storyline was too similar to their own failed marriage.
A few changes were applied by Brown and the musical went on to become a staple in the business and win a Drama Desk Award, among a plethora of nominations. The structure of the piece and the normalcy of the characters portrayed, combined with a score that spans pop and jazz, means it easily strikes a chord with audiences.
Cathy and Jamie inhabit different timelines throughout, meeting only in the middle of it for "The Next Ten Minutes". While Jamie's version of the narrative is seen chronologically, we open with Cathy mourning their marriage and telling it reversely. O'Boyle's heightens the chemistry and partition between the two by focusing all the conflict around a grand piano, and uses the updated lyrics from the 2014 film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.
Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson take turns on the keyboard, breaching the space between them physically but not sentimentally. The director builds vivid connections between their trajectories, highlighting their dichotomy and drawing beautiful parallels with the tone and mood of their songs. By using a revolve, he not only enlivens the action, but also accentuates the circular motion of the work.
This comes in the form of the delicate last image before the blackout that mirrors the very start of the production. It's these tender and exquisite touches and small details in the direction that make the show a privy affair.
Jamie Platt's lighting design becomes fundamental in the separation of their headspaces. He plays with warm and cold hues, with a moving amalgamation of the two in "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You".
Lynch and Higginson both deliver phenomenal performances. Their characters' ambition and selfishness seeps through the deliveries as their bond cracks and their flawed nature overpowers the love they have for each other.
They present Cathy and Jamie as normal, self-absorbed, determined individuals who are essentially blind to each other's needs. O'Boyle's direction works well to put the fracture on show: Jamie's rising fame illuminates Cathy's shortcomings as an actress, and their paths start to part ways before they realise it through evocative imagery and composition of the visuals.
Both exceptional singers, their role as musician adds a layer of complexity to their characters with the piano as a middle ground. The closeness as they play together turns into a divide, with a particular climax during Cathy's "Climbing Uphill" when Jamie stands for the uncooperative pianist in her audition.
While the duo's impressive craft is undeniable, the dive in the imperceptible emotive changes at the heart of certain songs isn't as evident. This is especially noticeable in her "See I'm Smiling" and his "Nobody Needs to Know", where the cathartic shift doesn't hit as powerfully as the lyrics suggest. Nonetheless, the end result is affecting and passionate.
This version of The Last Five Years explores the depths of the rupture between its protagonists. The forceful intimacy of Southwark Playhouse reinforces their presence in each other's life and makes the imperfections of their relationship pop. O'Boyle marries Brown's swift and catchy score with elegant visuals, presenting a glamorous and profoundly emotional piece of theatre.
Image credit: Pamela Raith